Inside the mind of a man

Science tells us that men’s brains are different from women’s – but that doesn’t mean we should not

In the heady, revolutionary days of student sit-ins in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s, the message about gender was that all differences were socially constructed. The idea was that, with re-education and so­cial change, these differences would melt away, opening the way for equality between the sexes. "Sociobiologists" were the enemy because they claimed that gender had something to do with genes and evolution. The battle lines between nature and nurture were drawn, with those on the political left firmly allied with nurture and those arguing for nature typecast as being on the extreme right.

One might hope that - 40 years on - such black-and-white thinking would have been replaced by a more nuanced understanding. There has been progress. Today's students of gender do not feel that their former champions (such as Germaine Greer, who wrote in 1991 about "centuries of conditioning of the female") have a monopoly on the truth, and they show a new willingness to learn what scientists have to share. Those scientists who acknowledge the partial role of biology in the creation of gender differences are not banished: it is no longer about nature v nurture.

My own research into gender differences stems from my interest in the neurodevelopmental condition of autism. "Neurodevelopmental" is a fancy word that means every person's brain - from foetal life, through childhood and adolescence - develops differently. In the case of autism, this is partly for genetic reasons, as autism runs in families and has been associated with over 200 different genetic variations. Many more boys than girls develop autism (or the related condition of Asperger's syndrome), so I wanted to understand why the biology of maleness predisposes a child's brain to end up in the condition's extreme state.

What we know is that girls, on average, make more eye contact than boys from at least 12 months of age and that, on average, language develops faster in girls than in boys, measured at 18 and 24 months of age. The question is: "Why?" Given that reduced eye contact and delayed language are two of the signs of classic autism in preschoolers, it seems necessary to consider whether autism is an extreme form of the typical male pattern of development.

New genes

When scientists conduct studies on the nature of the male and the female brain, they put people into two groups, based on their sex. I prefer the word "sex" to the word "gender" because your sex refers to your chromosomal status: whether you have one or two X chromosomes. This starting point, at the moment the egg is fertilised, sets in motion a cascade of consequences for the physical development of males and females because, in place of their second X chromosome, males alone have a Y chromosome. Situated on the Y chromosome is a cri­tical gene called SRY (shorthand for the "sex-determining region Y") that tells the embryo to either grow a pair of testes (and thus become male) or not (and thus remain female).

Once the testes start to function, they pump out the hormone testosterone. There is a surge in the production of this hormone by the foetus from the 12th to the 20th week of pregnancy. The baby's testes are not the only source of testosterone: it is also made from the adrenal glands, which explains why females also have some testosterone but males produce at least twice as much.

Animal experiments have shown that how much testosterone a foetus produces influences the "masculinisation" of the brain and (post-natal) behaviour. This is also true of human beings. We measured hormone levels in the amniotic fluid (the liquid in the womb) during pregnancy and found that the higher the baby's testosterone is pre-natally, the less eye contact the child makes at 12 months of age and the smaller the child's vocabulary is at 18 and 24 months. The puzzle of why, on average, girls talk earlier than boys and spend more time looking at people's faces is solved by this uni­que experiment. As a psychologist, however, I acknowledge that the influence of testosterone is only part of the explanation, as the more a child looks at faces or talks, the more such behaviour will be reinforced by the reactions of others - nature and nurture interacting.
Hormones are not the only biological factors that contribute to observed sex differences in the brain and behaviour, because these are under genetic influence, too, and there are many genes that are "sex-linked". Finding hormonal or genetic effects also says nothing about where in the brain these effects take place.

We know that the male brain is on average 8 per cent bigger than the female brain, even at as early as two weeks of age. But probably more important is that girls' brains tend to develop faster than boys'. We know from studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that girls peak about four years earlier than boys in terms of when they reach their maximum total brain volume and about two years earlier in terms of when they reach their maximum amount of "grey matter" in the brain. This important discovery tells us that, on average, girls mature at very different rates from boys.

Using MRI, you can find sex differences in other regions of the brain, too - a notable one being the amygdala (the "emotion centre"), in both size and activity. In addition, one of the language areas (the planum temporale) is, on average, larger in the female brain. Such findings say nothing about whether the differences come from biology or learning but, from everything we now know, it is a safe bet to say that they come from both.

Law of averages

Throughout this article I have used the phrase "on average", because sex differences cannot be extrapolated to individuals but emerge only when statistical averages of two groups (males and females) are compared. This small caveat is hugely important if stereotyping generalisations are to be avoided, as individuals may be typical or atypical of their sex.

It is equally important not to confuse science with politics. The science of sex differences was once feared, as if even asking the questions was part of a conspiracy to repress women and perpetuate inequalities. Like most conspiracy theories, this one is mythical. The scientists I have met who conduct these experiments are of every political hue.

Speaking for myself, I strongly oppose any form of discrimination or inequality, whether based on sex, ethnicity, social class or disability. Knowing a person's sex tells you nothing about his or her abilities, aptitudes or interests and making any assumption about that person on the basis of their sex would be sexist, scientifically inaccurate and morally wrong. But science helps us to uncover the mysteries of nature, including the nature of sex differences. Handled sensitively, it can teach us a lot about why we turn out the way we do.

Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. His book "Zero Degrees of Empathy" will be published in April by Allen Lane (£20)

He said, she said

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus - and bad at maths, according to the former president of Harvard Lawrence Summers. When asked at a conference in 2005 why more women were not engaged in high-level research in mathematics, science and engineering, Summers argued that it could be down to "issues of intrinsic aptitude". Such a statement reveals the curious evolution of thought on gender and biology through the 20th century.

When psychologists such as John Money first separated the notion of biological sex from that of gender in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, a consensus quickly emerged that gender was a social construct. Differences in the abilities of men and women were the product of social pressures and expectations, rather than innate, biological differences.

In recent years, however, gender has been pulled back again from the social to the scientific. Biological determinists contend that, far from being a cultural construct, the distinctions between the minds of men and women are innate.

This discourse, however, does not go unchallenged. Writers such as Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender contend that the evidence put forward is flawed. As for Summers, his comments led to a vote of no confidence and he eventually resigned. Perhaps men aren't as clever as they think.

Duncan Robinson

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

Show Hide image

Happiness is a huge gun: Cold War thrillers and the modern nuclear deterrent

For all that books and films laud Britain's strength, ultimately, they show that our power is interdependent.

Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the ­assassin for hire in Ian Fleming’s 1965 James Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, has invested more than money in his favourite weapon. Bond’s colleagues in the Secret Service have concluded from Freudian analysis that Scaramanga’s golden gun is “a symbol of virility – an extension of the male organ”. It is just one of many phallic weapons in the Bond saga. In Dr No, for instance, Bond reflects on his 15-year “marriage” to his Beretta handgun as he fondly recalls “pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world”. Objectively speaking, guns comprise little more than highly engineered metal and springs, but Fleming invests them with an ­extraordinary degree of psychosexual significance.

Size matters in the Bond novels – a point made by a furious Paul Johnson in a review of Dr No for this paper in 1958 (“everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics”). One of the Bond stories’ biggest weapons is a rocket carrying an atomic warhead: the Moonraker, which gives its name to the third Bond novel, published in 1955. The most important thing about the Moonraker is that it is apparently British – a gift to a grateful nation from the plutocrat Sir Hugo Drax. And, like Bond’s Beretta, it is freighted with psychosexual significance. When Bond first lays eyes on it there is no doubt that this is an erotically charged symbol of destructive power. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Bond says, with a “rapt expression”:

Up through the centre of the shaft, which was about thirty feet wide, soared a pencil of glistening chromium [. . .] nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber.

The guns in the Bond books can be seen as expressions of their bearer’s power – or, as with Scaramanga’s golden gun, compensation for a lack of virility. The Moonraker is equally symbolic, but on a far larger scale: an expression of a nation’s geopolitical power, or compensation for its impotence.

As what is known officially as Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent (“Trident” to everyone else) returns to the top of the political agenda, the cultural dimension of the debate will no doubt continue to be overlooked. Yet culture matters in politics, especially when the issue is a weapon. As the guns in the Bond novels remind us, weapons are not merely tools, they are also symbols. Trident is not just a system comprising nuclear warheads, missiles and four Vanguard-class submarines. Its symbolic meanings are, to a great extent, what this debate is about. Trident stands for Britain itself, and it does so for different people in different ways. Your opinion on whether to cancel or replace it depends to a great extent on what kind of country you think Britain is, or ought to be.

The Cold War British spy thriller is particularly topical because it developed in tandem with Britain’s nuclear programme through the 1950s and 1960s. Moonraker was published just weeks after Churchill’s government announced its intention to build an H-bomb in the 1955 defence white paper, and three years after Britain’s first atomic test on the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. These novels drew on technological reality in their plots concerning the theft of nuclear secrets or the proliferation of nuclear technology, but they influenced reality as well as reflected it, with stories of British power that helped create Britain’s image of itself in a postwar world.

The main theme of the genre is the decline of British power and how the country responded. Atomic or nuclear weapons serve this as symbols and plot devices. Len Deighton’s debut novel, The Ipcress File (1962), for instance, concerns a plan to brainwash British scientists to spy for the Soviet Union, and has as its centrepiece an American neutron-bomb test on a Pacific atoll, observed by a British double agent who is transmitting Allied secrets to an offshore Soviet submarine. The novel’s technical dialogue on nuclear technology, and its appendices providing a fictionalised account of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and a factual explanation of the neutron bomb, are in the book not merely for verisimilitude: Deighton’s British spies are observers or victims of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, agents with remarkably little agency.

A more dour variation on the theme is John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War (1965), in which the prospect of obtaining information on Soviet nuclear missiles in East Germany provokes “the Department”, a failing military intelligence organisation, to try to regain its wartime glory with an intelligence coup. This hubris leads to tragedy as its amateurish operation unravels to disastrous effect, le Carré’s point being that military and economic might cannot be regained through nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These novels situate British decline in the context of superpower domination; their characters recall the technological and operational successes of the Second World War but seem unable to accept the contemporary reality of military and geopolitical decline. For Deighton and le Carré, Britain simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to, which is why, in le Carré’s later Smiley novels and Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (1983-85), the spymasters are so desperate to impress the Americans.

Fleming is usually seen as a reactionary, even blimpish writer – his England was “substantially right of centre”, Kingsley Amis remarked – and he signalled his own politics by making a trade unionist the ­villain of his first novel, Casino Royale (1953). So it might seem surprising that he was as concerned as his younger contemporaries Deighton and le Carré with British decline. The historian David Cannadine, for one, emphasises that although Fleming may have been aghast at certain aspects of postwar change such as the welfare state and unionisation (opinions that Bond makes no secret of sharing), he simply refused to believe that Britain was in decline, a refusal embodied in Bond’s very character.

Bond the man is more than the “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a ­government department” that Fleming described to the Manchester Guardian in 1958. He is an expression of the British state itself, demonstrating Britain’s toughness while besting its enemies – the Russian agents of SMERSH and, later, the international criminals and terrorists of SPECTRE. He is supported by a formidable apparatus of technological and logistical capability that mythologises British research and development, which had peaked during the Second World War (a point made more obviously in the film franchise when Fleming’s Armourer becomes the white-coated Q, heir to Barnes Wallis and the ingenious technicians of the Special Operations Executive). And, as Cannadine astutely observes, “this comforting, escapist theme of Britain’s continued pre-eminence” is most evident in Bond’s relationship with the United States. The Americans may have more money, but they cannot spy or fight anywhere near as well as Bond, as is made plain when the hapless Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend in the CIA, literally loses an arm and a leg to one of Mr Big’s sharks in Live and Let Die (1954).

Moonraker, however, exposes a more complex and sceptical side to Fleming’s Bond. It is significant that this emerges in a book that is explicitly about Englishness and the Bomb. The rocket is being built atop another symbol: the white cliffs of Dover, prompting some surprisingly lyrical passages on the beauty of South Foreland coast. And yet, though replete with emblems of English tradition and bursting with hatred of ugly, evil-minded foreigners, this novel has an unmistakable political subtext that undermines its apparent confidence in British power. Drax, it turns out, is a patriot – but a patriot of Nazi Germany, which he had served as an SS officer and plans to avenge with a missile that is pointing not, as everyone believes, at a test site in the North Sea, but at central London, the intended Ground Zero being a flat in Ebury Street, Belgravia (the location, incidentally, of Fleming’s own bachelor pad in the 1930s and 1940s). The missile has been designed and built by engineers from Wernher von Braun’s wartime rocket programme, and its atomic warhead has been generously donated by the Soviet Union, which is looking to bring Britain to its knees without having to go through the rigmarole of fighting a war.

The Moonraker, we are told repeatedly, will restore Britain to its rightful place at the global top table after its unfortunate postwar period of retrenchment and austerity. But the rocket is not British, except in being built on British soil, and the aim of the man controlling it is to destroy British power, not project it. The implication is that Britain is not only incapable of looking after its own defences, but also pathetically grateful for the favours bestowed on it. After the missile is fired, its trajectory diverted by Bond back to the original target (thereby fortuitously taking out a Soviet submarine carrying the fleeing Drax), the government decides to cover it all up and allow the public to continue believing that the Moonraker is a genuinely British atomic success.

One of the ironies of the Bond phenomenon is that by examining the myths and realities of British hard power, it became a chief instrument of British soft power. Of the first 18 novels to sell over a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond books, and Moonraker (by no means the most successful instalment of the saga) was approaching the two million mark 20 years after publication. The film franchise continues to offer Cannadine’s “comforting, escapist” image of Britain (the two most recent pictures, directed by Sam Mendes, are especially replete with British icons), but the novels are altogether more uncertain about Britain’s role in the world. Moonraker is full of anxiety that the myth of British power is nothing more than a myth, that Britain lacks the industrial and scientific wherewithal to return to greatness. It even conjures up an image of the apocalypse, reminding readers of the precariousness of those cherished British values and institutions, when the love interest, the improbably named Special Branch detective Gala Brand, imagines the terrible consequences of Drax’s plan:

The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

***

Even though their plots ensure that apocalypse is averted, Cold War thrillers thus made their own contribution to forcing us to imagine the unimaginable, as did more mainstream post-apocalyptic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Nevil Shute’s bestseller On the Beach (1957) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) by Angus Wilson. In Desmond Cory’s Shockwave, first published in 1963 as Hammerhead and featuring the Spanish-British agent Johnny Fedora (whose debut preceded Bond’s by two years), Madrid is saved from destruction by a nuclear bomb that the Soviet master spy Feramontov almost succeeds in delivering to its target. As he contemplates his objective, Feramontov muses that, in the “bomb-haunted world of the Sixties”, death in a nuclear fireball “might even come as a release, like the snapping of an overtautened string; and after the rains of death had flooded the Earth, those who survived in the sodden ruins might think of him as a benefactor of the race”.

But where the post-apocalyptic dystopias might be viewed as an argument for nuclear disarmament, later Cold War thrillers such as Cory’s usually accepted the fact of mutually assured destruction – and that British peace and prosperity were guaranteed by US nuclear firepower. Nowhere is this more apparent than Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 bestseller, The Fourth Protocol, which turns the Labour Party’s famously unilateralist 1983 election manifesto into a uniquely party-political espionage plot. In it, the general secretary of the Soviet Union conspires with the elderly Kim Philby to smuggle into Britain a small, self-assembly nuclear bomb that a KGB “illegal” will put together and ­detonate at a US air force base in East Anglia.

Unlike in Moonraker and Shockwave, however, the objective is not to provoke hostilities or prompt military capitulation, but to persuade the British public to vote Labour – by provoking horror and outrage at the risks of US nuclear weapons remaining on British soil. However, the new and moderate Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, will have a scant few hours in Downing Street, as a hard-left rival under Soviet control (such as a certain Ken Livingstone, whom Philby describes as “a nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice”) will at once usurp Kinnock and reinstate a policy of unilateral disarmament, leading to the removal of the US missiles.

The ideological force of Forsyth’s novel is clear enough: Britain is beset by enemies within and without, and must arm itself morally and politically against communism. But although this is an insistently, even tiresomely patriotic novel, its plot makes no attempt to conceal Britain’s relative military weakness and dependence on the United States, though disaster is averted by the combined brilliance of MI5, MI6 and the SAS. The Fourth Protocol thus becomes an allegory of this country’s world-leading “niche capabilities”, which maintain Britain’s prestige and relevance despite its declining military and economic might.

Today, the political argument remains on much the same terms as at the start of the Cold War. Whichever way you look at it, Trident symbolises Britain. To its supporters, it is symbolic of Britain’s talent for “punching above its weight”, and its responsibility to protect freedom and keep the global peace. To its opponents, it is an emblem of economic folly, militaristic excess, and a misunderstanding of contemporary strategic threats; it is an expression not of British confidence but of a misplaced machismo, a way for Britons to feel good about themselves that fails to address the real threats to the nation. One academic, Nick Ritchie of York University, argues that Britain’s nuclear policy discourse “is underpinned by powerful ideas about masculinity in international politics in which nuclear weapons are associated with ideas of virility, strength, autonomy and rationality”.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima became a byword for mass destruction, George ­Orwell predicted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” that nuclear weapons would bring about what he was the first to call a “cold war”. Because an atomic bomb “is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship”, it could be produced at scale only by countries with vast industrial capacity; this would lead to the emergence of two or three superpowers, confronting each other in a “peace that is no peace”.

Orwell’s point about industrial capacity helps explain why Trident is totemic: it is proof that our industrial might has not entirely vanished. Alternatively, it can be seen as a consolation for industrial decline. This may be why the huge cost of the Successor programme – one of the main arguments wielded by Trident’s opponents against replacement – appears to be a source of pride for the government: the Strategic Defence and Security Review proclaims that, at £31bn, with a further £10bn for contingencies, Successor will be “one of the largest government investment programmes”.

Clearly, size matters today as much as it did when Fleming was writing. But Moonraker again helps us see that all is not what it seems. Just as the Moonraker is a German missile with a Soviet warhead, even if it is being built in Kent, so the missiles carried by the Vanguard-class submarines are, in fact, made in California, Britain having given up missile production in the 1960s. The Trident warheads are made in Berkshire – but by a privatised government agency part-owned by two American firms. Trident may be British, but only in the way Manchester United or a James Bond movie are British.

The Cold War spy thriller presciently suggests that true independence is an illusion. Britain may consume the most destructive weapons yet invented, but it can no longer produce them or deliver them without America’s industrial might. British power is interdependent, not independent: that is the Cold War thriller’s most politically prescient message.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt